The Tyranny of Numbers
Why counting can’t make us happy
Published in a US version, with different historical chapters as: The Sum of our Discontent: Why numbers make us irrational Texere (2002-4)
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“A great antidote to cynicism, and a sharply witty reminder of what is important in life.”
“I disagree with David Boyle’s premise, deplored his conclusions, and enjoyed The Tyranny of Numbers immensely.”
Robert Worcester, Management Today
David Boyle, Observer 14 January 14, 2001:
Mary Poppins was the first film I ever saw. I was six years, four months old - let's measure it precisely. I remember trotting as fast as I could beside my father along Whitehall, past the Treasury and the other palaces of national calculation, to the Haymarket. And I remember being blown away by the experience, the songs of Julie Andrews and the idea that life should be a little more magical than it was.
Within weeks I knew most of the lyrics by heart, though I barely understood the words. Maybe, in retrospect, I was also a little influenced by Mary Poppins's ridicule of George Banks and his fascination for the kind of order brought by numbers. 'They must feel the thrill of totting up a balance book,' she sings to poor deluded George about his children: '... A thousand cyphers neatly in a row. When gazing at a graph that shows the profits up, their little cup of joy should overflow.'
The irony is lost on him - as it was on me. And though Hollywood is still busily promoting the idea of magic, you would never catch it now making fun of profits or ridiculing the importance of calculation - still less the idea of cyphers neatly in a row. I came away from the cinema determined to make sure I flung my tuppence away on a little old bird woman, rather than marvelling at the strange alchemy of compound interest if I put it in the bank. Yet here I am, 35 years later, with my pension and life insurance, living in a world overwhelmed by numbers and calculation.
It's the same for nearly all of us. There are personal calculations to be made each day, about investments, journey times, bank machines and credit cards. There are professional figures at work, in the form of targets, statistics, workforce percentages and profit-fore casts. As consumers, we are counted and aggregated according to every purchase we make. Every time we are exposed to the media, there is a positive flood of statistics controlling and interpreting the world, developing each truth, simplifying each problem.
We take our collective pulse 24 hours a day with the use of statistics. We understand life that way, though some how the more figures we use, the more the great truths seem to slip through our fingers. Despite all that numerical control, we feel as ignorant of the answers to the big questions as ever.
If you are to be 'calculating', people could mean one of two things about you - both related and equally repellent. It could mean you are constantly weighing up what is best for you in any situation. This is not a compliment. It implies something cold, fish-like and self-interested. But it could also mean you are someone who counts too much, someone who measures things but can't see the reality behind them.
There is something equally clinical about that, but in a disinterested rather than self-interested way. And it can send a shiver down the spine when you come across extreme examples. Like the eighteenth-century prodigy Jedediah Buxton in his first trip to the theatre to see a performance of Richard III. Asked whether he'd enjoyed it, all he could say was that there were 5,202 steps during the dances and 12,445 words spoken by the actors. Nothing about what the words said, about the winter of our discontent made glorious summer; nothing about the evil hunchback king.
Today, Buxton would probably be described as autistic. It is particularly horrifying to hear that his numbers turned out to be exactly right.
The story is funny now as then, but it is also faintly disturbing. Buxton is in some ways a fearsome symbol of the modern age, in which we count everything but see the significance of nothing. There is something inhuman, not so much about his ability to count, but his failure to be moved. We shiver at anybody with no emotions - as if they were amoral, like Dr Strangelove.
Even so, we encounter such 'calculating' man-machines almost every day: the academic who refuses to pass judgment on any problem, however urgent, because there hasn't been enough research; the politician who is so obsessed with opinion polls that he can no longer trust his gut instincts; the social scientist who has laboriously proved with the use of statistics something that anybody else with an ounce of common sense knew already - that the death of a parent can scar a child for life, or that alcoholics have an unusually high depression rate. It's 'official', they say. Like the University of Michigan study which revealed that children who don't exercise and eat junk food tend to be fatter. Or the recent research which showed that areas of high unemployment tend to have fewer jobs.
Ratcheting up the calculations has often been done for excellent humanitarian reasons, driven by impeccably radical reformers. Maybe they wanted to prove the existence of great inequality or disease, like Edwin Chadwick. Maybe they wanted to find a way of aggregating the national accounts to defeat Hitler, like John Maynard Keynes. Or maybe they wanted to force politicians to worry about people's happiness, like Jeremy Bentham. These are people who - for the best of motives - brought the flood of numbers and calculations into the non-scientific parts of our lives.
It still is a way of improving the world. Are your schools not performing as well as they should? Then measure their results. Are you worried about the performance of a council, a company, a hospital? Send in the auditors. You don't trust the professionals? Summarise their decisions in number form. It is the modern way. Numbers - like money - drive out the mysterious power of elites, the clubbable atmosphere of the professions, the patronising attitudes of those thick-set people with glasses and firm handshakes who used to lord it over our lives. Numbers give us back control. But the numbers have proliferated, so that it's sometimes hard to breathe - still less tell the difference between one statistic and another. It is difficult enough to remember your car registration number, PIN, home, work and mobile phone numbers all at the same time. It's almost enough to make you coldly calculating.
The problem is if you don't count what's really important, it gets ignored. There are only so many resources, so doctors must compare the quality of life of a 70-year-old with heart-failure against a suicidal teenager with a long history of depression. Planners have to compare the pleasure and disruption brought by a new 18-screen cinema with the contentment of keeping it as a park. Investors have to compare a notoriously polluting oil company with a dodgy record in human rights with a tremendously successful internet company with three employees and no profits.
They measure, measure, measure, knowing that what they measure is alive and will not keep still, and suspecting that maybe - however much they count - they will not capture the essence of the question they are asking. Things have to keep static if you're going to count them: that's probably why the first statisticians were known as 'statists'. But real life isn't still.
We need answers, but we also know that what is most important to our lives simply can't be pinned down like a still-life. What we can't do is leave things as they are - all of those numbers are making us misunderstand things. And every time a new set of statistics comes out, I can't help feeling some of the richness and mystery of life gets extinguished. Just as individual stories of passion and betrayal get hidden by the marriage statistics, or the whole meaning of the Holocaust gets lost in the number 6,000,000. There is a sort of deadening effect, a distancing from human emotion and reality. Barely discernible, but just enough for it to matter. Our obsession with numbers creates a number of paradoxes.
Counting paradox 1: You can count people, but you can't count individuals.
The definition 'Average Man' belongs to the Industrial Revolution and the twentieth-century world of mass-production and is now a deeply unfashionable term. We can see more clearly today how difficult it is to categorise the widely different individuals who make up the human race. But in the hands of a bureaucratic state, people who don't conform to the norm still get hounded and imprisoned. Or social workers visit them and remove their children. And after all that, when you actually get to know Mr Average, you find he has a bizarre taste in underwear and a hidden collection of Abba records. He wasn't average at all.
Counting paradox 2: If you count the wrong thing, you go backwards .
Because it is so hard to measure what is really important, governments and institutions try to pin down something else. They have to. But the consequences of pinning down the wrong thing can be severe.
Take school league tables. The idea of forcing schools to compete with each other by measuring the progress of children at three comparable moments of their lives, was intended to raise standards. They probably have done in a narrow way. The trouble was that schools concentrated on the test results to improve their position on the tables. That meant excluding pupils who may drag down the results, concentrating on the D grade pupils - the only ones who could make a difference in exam result league tables - to the detriment of the others. If you choose the wrong measure, you sometimes get the opposite of what you wanted.
Counting paradox 3: Numbers replace trust, but make measuring even more untrustworthy.
When farmers and merchants didn't trust each other to provide the right amount of wheat, they could use the standard local barrel stuck to the wall of the town hall, which would measure the agreed local bushel. When we don't trust our corporations, politicians or professionals now, we send in the auditors - and we break down people's jobs into measureable units so that we can see what they are doing and check it. If doctors hide behind their professional masks, then we measure the number of deaths per number of patients, their treatment record and their success rate, and hold them accountable. .
So here's the paradox. Numbers are democratic. We use them to peer into the mysterious worlds of professionals, to take back some kind of control. Yet in another sense they are not democratic at all. Politicians like to pretend that numbers take the decisions out of their hands. 'Listen to the scientists,' they say about BSE or genetically modified food. There has been, in other words, a shift of power from one kind of professional to another, in the name of democracy - from teachers and doctors to accountants, auditors and number-crunchers. And as we all trust the companies and institutions less, we trust the auditors less too.
Counting paradox 4: The more we count, the less we understand.
Numbers allow experts to 'speak one and the same language, even if they use different mother tongues,' said Karl Popper. This is an international language based on centrally imposed definitions. It's a kind of modern imperialism, with no respect for local understanding. Can we really believe the European Union was getting accurate comparisons in its survey asking 60,000 people if they 'could make ends meet'? As if a German, a Greek and a Briton would all understand the same by that. When Pepsi had its slogan 'Come alive with the Pepsi generation' translated into Chinese, it was understood as 'Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the grave'. Microscopic differences in definition create big effects.
Counting paradox 5: The more we count, the less we can compare the figures.
In 1978 the Chief Constable of Greater Manchester, James Anderton, made a challenging speech about crime figures for England and Wales. There had been 77,934 recorded crimes in 1900, he said. In 1976, there were 2,135,713. The country was horrified.
Every generation believes crime is getting worse. In the mid-nineteenth century Friedrich Engels calculated that crime had risen more than seven times since the battle of Trafalgar in 1805. Seventy years later there was the sudden 90 per cent rise in bag-snatching between the wars, mainly because police statistics stopped reporting such thefts as 'lost property'.
The same happened in the 1970s, when police stopped distinguishing between major damage and minor damage (defined as less than £20) and vandalism figures doubled in a year - just before Anderton unveiled his statistics.
Counting paradox 6: Measurements have a monstrous life of their own.
Stalin announced his first Soviet five-year plan in 1928, an enormous undertaking planned to increase gross industrial output by 235.9 per cent and labour productivity by 110 per cent. But these figureswere completely spurious. The fake precision was to lend a pseudo-scientific air to the whole enterprise. The actual effect of the plan was to reduce real per capita income by half, and starve millions on what Stalin referred to as the 'agricultural front'. Even so, he declared the first five-year plan a success 12 months early in 1932, and the second one started right away.
The figures were widely believed, even in the West. But not only were nearly all of them falsified, they carried with them a terrible authoritarianism to try to force them to be true. Which is why one in eight of the Soviet population was shot or sent to a labour camp. Figures are frightening sometimes.
Counting paradox 7: When you count things, they get worse.
In quantum physics, the mere presence of an observer in sub-atomic particle experiments can change the results. In anthropology, researchers have to report on their own cultural reactions as a way of offsetting the same effect. And once you start looking at numbers you keep falling over a strange phenomenon, which is that the official statistics tend to get worse when society is worried about something.
Why, for example, did illegitimacy figures shoot up only after the war babies panic in 1915? At the time of the panic, the number of illegitimate births was astonishingly low - and the number of marriages strangely high. Why was the number of homes unfit for human habitation in the UK in 1967 (after the TV film Cathy Come Home ) almost twice the figure for 1956 - despite more than a decade of intensive demolition and rebuilding?
The death of Stephen Lawrence led to widespread concern about race attacks in London. But after the public inquiry on the subject in 1998, Metropolitan Police figures of race attacks leapt from 1,149 to 7,790 in one year.
It's difficult to know quite why the figures go up. Sometimes the definitions change to reflect greater public concern. Sometimes people just report more instances of it because it is in the forefront of their minds. Sometimes, maybe, what we fear the most comes to pass.
Counting paradox 8: The more sophisticated you are, the less you can measure.
It sounds nonsense, but it's true: for politicians who try to measure the elusive source of 'feelgood' in their populations, for business leaders who recognise that the key to success is realising that their assets are intangible qualities which are extremely hard to measure - like knowledge, information or reputation.
Microsoft is an extreme example. Its balance sheet lists assets that amount to only about six per cent of what the company is worth. 'In other words,' says the futurist Charles Leadbetter, '94 per cent of the value of this most dynamic and powerful company in the new digital economy is in intangible assets that accountants cannot measure.'
We have reached a point where measuring things doesn't work any more. When you're in politics or business and you need to measure the unmeasurable in order to make things happen - and your career and our lives may depend on you being able to do so - then you have crisis. It is a counting crisis, born out of using numbers to distil the sheer complexity of life into something manageable. The closer you get to measuring what's really important, the more it escapes you. Because number-crunching brings a kind of blindness with it. When we measure life, we reduce it.